Protesters chant slogans against Iraq’s Shiite-led government during a January demonstration in Ramadi, Iraq. The U.S. invasion transferred power to oppressed Shiites and Kurds, but left many Sunni Muslims alienated. (Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
Cairo — President George W. Bush kept it simple in his short TV address the evening of March 19, 2003: U.S. forces had begun their campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein, he said.
The goals, he outlined in his first sentence, were straightforward: "to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger."
Some 522 words later he promised the result: "We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail."
The Bush administration had hoped the war that began with airstrikes before dawn on March 20, 2003 would quickly rid Iraq of purported weapons of mass destruction, go after extremists and replace a brutal dictatorship with the foundations of a pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
Ten years on, Iraq's long-term stability and the strength of its democracy remain open questions. The country is unquestionably freer and more democratic than it was before the "shock and awe" airstrikes began. But instead of a solidly pro-U.S. regime, the Iraqis have a government that is arguably closer to Tehran than to Washington and that struggles to exert full control over the country itself.
Bloody attacks launched by terrorists who thrived in the post-invasion chaos are still frequent — albeit less so than a few years back — and sectarian and ethnic rivalries are again tearing at the fabric of national unity.
By the time the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in December 2011, nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis had lost their lives. No active WMDs were ever found. The war cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and diverted resources from Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida rebounded after their hit in the 2001 invasion.
In Iraq, the Americans and their allies left behind a broken, deeply traumatized country. The toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime destroyed not only dictatorship but also the mechanism of law and order, enabling the rise of al-Qaida and the unleashing of sectarian, ethnic and class hatreds.
The invasion transferred power overnight to oppressed Shiites and Kurds but left many Sunni Arabs alienated. It established a system of sectarian-based politics that undermined national unity.
Iraqi citizens today are unafraid to criticize their elected leaders in public and guests on TV talk shows boldly rail against corruption and other wrongdoing by their elected leaders.
"There is a change going on in the country," said Dalia Ayad, a college student. "But it's not moving fast enough."
That is partly because Iraq remains a sharply divided society. Majority Shiites tend to see more reason for hope than Sunnis do.
"Now people can hold protests against the government and criticize government officials," said Haider Ali Hassan, a government employee in the southern city of Basra. "There are a lot of shortcomings and problems ... but it is still better than Saddam's time."
Associated Press contributed.